joviko

Mar 012014
 

I saw a VIA APC 8750 single-board computer for $20 on eBay. After poking around various reviews, tech blogs, and forums, it sounded like a computer with some promise but a few problems.

The 8750 looks great on paper: 800 MHz ARM CPU; 512 MB RAM; 2 GB on-board NAND flash memory; VGA and HDMI video up to 720p; 4 USB ports; microSD slot; stereo audio in and out. No case, but it comes with a AC power adapter. Plus various pins for hooking up serial ports and sundry devices. All for $50 new (or, in my case, $23 used including shipping).

In real life, the 8750 doesn’t look so good. VIA (confusingly calling themselves APC for this line of computers) took a great idea and completely screwed it up.

The big problem? They took a good tinkerer’s computer and installed a completely locked-down version of Android Gingerbread on it.

Yes. Gingerbread. A very outdated version of Android. And they locked it down, with no root access. And no app store of any kind. And only a few apps: A crashy browser; a crashy version of YouTube; a Settings manager; and a front-end to Google Search, plus a Contacts  manager and the terrible Android Email (not Gmail) client. That’s it. That’s all. No Linux. No BSD.

One determined hacker did manage to get Raspbian Linux running on his 8750, and provided binaries and instructions to the world. But he got zero support from VIA for his efforts, and he eventually decided that he had better things to do than act as homebrew-support for a company that didn’t support tinkering on their tinkerer’s computer. So, he pulled down his blog and his binaries. And that was that. It’s currently still possible to follow the recipe and install Raspbian, but you’ll need to cook up your own serial cable and 3.3V (not 5V) connection in order to access the 8750’s console mode in order to do so. Or live with an old, slightly broken hack-version of Raspbian booting off of the microSD card.

You can also sideload Android apps via microSD card or USB flash drive. They of course need to be Gingerbread compatible, and can’t require root access. You can even install Google Play.

Whee.

Overall, the 8750 wasn’t a total waste for the price of a movie ticket and snacks. I enjoyed monkeying around with it for several hours, trying different ways to get root access, or to update Android, or to get a modern version of Linux running.

I really have to wonder what the people at VIA were thinking, though: they made an interesting competitor to the Raspberry Pi, then put a locked-down, ancient version of a completely inappropriate OS on it.

Mar 012014
 

I have a thing for cheap, usable computers. If it’s $20 or less and sounds like it might do something useful, I’ll probably buy it.

I’ve been very impressed with Pogoplug ARM-based computers. They were originally designed to act as personal cloud servers, but are easily hacked to install Arch Linux. I have two, an E02G (similar to the pink one pictured) and a V4-A1 (the black one pictured). I’ve connected old USB hard drives to both to serve as file storage. Flash drives would work as well, but the hard drives were “free” and the flash drives would push the price over $20 per computer. A new E02 can run to $24 or $30, but a used one can be had for under $20 including shipping. Similarly, the V4-A1 is typically $15 new, $10 used, including shipping.

I use the E02G to host a homebrew web-based RSS feed reader (a replacement for Google Reader, RIP). Which I use every day, and which pushes the E02G to its limits in terms of both its 1.2 GHz CPU and its 256 MB of RAM. The feed reader uses MariaDB–a spinoff from MySQL–for database stuff, and it’s really the SQL server that keeps the Pogoplug busy and its memory chock-full.

Because the E02G is busy doing something I care about, I use the V4-A1 for tinkering. The V4-A1 is a bit more limited than the E02G, with only 1 USB port, 128 MB RAM, and an 800 MHz CPU. It’s also smaller and cleaner looking. (Honestly, the E02 is pretty ugly.) If I end up buying a third Pogoplug, I’ll probably spend the extra (gasp!) $5 or $7 and get another E02.

Compared to the more expensive Raspberry Pi, the Pogoplugs have the following pros and cons:

Pros

  • Comes complete, including case and power supply. The bare Pi costs $25 – $35, but adding in a power supply and case can add $15 or much more.
  • Designed from the outset as a personal server to run continuously.
  • Cheap!
  • Easy to get Arch Linux–a complete, secure, and well-supported version of Linux with all the modern conveniences–up and running.
  • Faster CPU than the Pi’s 700 MHz one.
  • 3 USB ports instead of just 1 or 2.
  • Gigabit ethernet port (not that the Pogoplug can really use that much bandwidth).
  • Like the Pi, the Pogoplug runs silently without fans.

Cons

  • No video support; no VGA or HDMI port. You SSH into the Pogoplug from another computer over the internet.
  • No GPU or FPU, so tasks involving heavy computation–like recoding video files–can be very slow.
  • Half the RAM of the Pi model B rev 2 (but same as earlier models).
  • The Pogoplug company makes their money off of their cloud service, not the computers, and definitely not off of homebrewers (mis)using the computers. So there is no support from them.
  • No edgy chic hipster cred like the Pi. Or community support like the Pi has.
  • No analog or digital I/O lines.

In other words, if you’re looking for a cheap, reliable little box to reliably do boring, stodgy things like act as a file server or SQL server, the Pogoplug is definitely worth a look. If you’d like to mess around with tiny ARM-based computers at minimum cost, it’s hard to find a cheaper alternative to the ‘plug.

May 252013
 

onyx

Backstory

I have been on a quest for my entire adult life to find a bike that I really like. I did manage to find it a couple of times.

Once was a yellow completely generic no-name mountain bike, no suspension, 7 back gears and 2 front. Very primitive by modern standards. I liked it because I was able to get it adjusted to fit me just right. Also because both the front and rear brakes (center-pull, but not V-brakes) worked all the time without squeaking or needing my attention. The bike had a heavy steel frame, and was essentially indestructible. So of course, as these things often go, once I got it exactly how I liked it, with good tire liners, bright lights, and everything just so, someone stole it. Bye, yellow bike. You were the best.

The other bike I loved was a Bianchi road bike. It was that weird pale green Bianchi color, had a sexy-sounding Italian name, and had a price tag that I couldn’t really afford. I’ve bought used cars for less than that bike. But it was worth the price. It was a wonderful bike. Effortlessly fast. Everything on it just worked. No futzing, no drama, it just went quick and smooth, braked hard and sure, and made riding really fun. Except for the tiny hard leather seat, but I got used to that. And my constant worry about theft every time I rode it to work. I never got used to that. So, the Bianchi became a weekend bike, and I bought another cheap generic no-name mountain bike for commuting. Over time, I got very un-used to the hard little leather saddle. Eventually, the Bianchi became That Dusty Bike With The Flat Tires. I gave it to a friend who fixed it up and rode it happily for several years, then he passed it on to another friend who really needed a way to get to work, and who is still riding it–fast, silent, and with a huge grin–to this day. So I’m pretty happy with how things worked out.

The new mountain bike was similar to the yellow one, except it was blue and it never was quite as good as the yellow one. The brakes squeaked sometimes. I could never get the seat height just right. It constantly needed some part or another replaced. Eventually, it was stolen too. I wasn’t terribly upset.

I went through a series of other bikes, a couple of fancy mountain bikes, a heavy-duty industrial bike, and a recumbent. I liked all of them in some ways, didn’t like them in others, and really hated at least one thing or another on every single one of them. The comfy recliner-on-wheels recumbent was probably my favorite, except for two things: On hills the combination of a long sloppy drivetrain and no way to “stand” on the pedals made for a real annoyance; it was possible to “spin” pedal the bike up a hill, but it wasn’t fun. It had a really long wheelbase, which made sharp turns on city sidewalk corners a complete hassle–and not just to me, but to the other riders who had to navigate around my land yacht. It ended up that the frame of that recumbent model had a flawed design and would eventually break. By the time mine did, I was already an ex-recumbent rider in my head, and was happy to say goodbye to it.

I burnt out on bicycling, and lost interest in it. Then one day I stumbled across an internet forum where people were describing how they modified their Onyx beach cruisers. There were lots of pictures, and the bikes looked really cool–all gloss black with white trim. One post included a link to the bike at WalMart. I couldn’t believe it–the Onyx was only $150. And it had a ton of rave reviews. That sounded like my kind of bike–both good and cheap. So I went to my local WalMart and checked one out. I rode it around the store a little, and loved it. The bike was huge, but it rolled like a breeze and was surprisingly comfy. I was ready to buy it. But having been burned by impulse buys in the past, I decided to think about it and come back the next day. As luck would have it, when I returned the display model had been sold, and they didn’t expect more in stock for at least a week, probably two. I didn’t want to wait that long, so I started checking nearby WalMarts, Craigslist, then eBay. Where I found drichard45 selling them for $120, including shipping. Sounded sketchy, but the reviews were good. So, I rolled the dice and bought one. It arrived in less than a week, brand new, still in the original box.

 

Assembly And First Ride

The bike needed a bit of assembly: I had to attach the handlebars, then put on the fenders, seat, water bottle cage, and reflectors. The front wheel’s axle was overtightened, so I got out the wrenches and got it just right so it spun smoothly with no wobble. The bright-white chain was very lightly greased, so I added a bit more grease. Overall, it took about an hour to assemble, maybe a little longer.

Then it was off for the first real ride, and I totally fell in love. The Onyx is unbelievably easy to pedal. It rides very smoothly for a bike without any suspension. It’s surprisingly fast for a single-speed beach cruiser. The tires and frame are so big that I feel like a kid riding it (though I can put my feet flat on the ground when straddling the bike’s upper bar). Basically, it’s a hoot. It’s fun.

The coaster brake gets the job done, but takes a bit of getting used to. Also, I’m thinking about maybe adding a front brake. It’s weird to not have that immediate stopping power that a good front brake provides, and I still grab for the nonexistent brake levers anytime I need to stop fast. On the other hand, it’s nice to not have brakes that squeak or need adjusting.

 

Details

The bicycle is a Kent Genesis Onyx (or “ONEX” on the stickers on the bike) 29″ beach cruiser. It is very similar (identical?) to the Kent Shogun Stryker 29″ cruiser, but considerably cheaper. Genesis is a brand-name made exclusively for WalMart.

As is typical for beach cruisers, the Onyx has a chain guard and fenders (splash guards). It is a single-speed.

It has a pedal-operated coaster brake for the back wheel. It has no front brake, though there is a mounting hole on the front forks for caliper or V-brakes. There are no mounting holes on either the front wheel hub or the front fork for disc brakes. Similarly, there is a hole for mounting caliper or V-brakes on the back frame, but no support for disc brakes on the back wheel hub or frame.

The Onyx has a large, cushy seat and wide handlebars with hard-rubber grips at the ends.

The entire bike is black with the exception of the stickers, the chain, the insides of the pedals, and the water bottle holder, which are all bright white. Most of the bike is gloss black. It really does look cool. There are two rear reflectors, one on either side of the rear fender, and they look like little rocket exhausts. Very cute (and not at all like the standard reflector in the stock picture above) I personally don’t think that they’re big enough to be effective, but I added front and rear lights to my bike anyway, so for me it doesn’t matter if they are big enough or not.

The Onyx has a 3-piece crank, with 107mm long crank arms which attach to the bottom bracket via a spindle with tapered-square ends. The crank arms are held onto the spindle with 8mm-1mm “fine thread” x 16mm crank-arm bolts which thread into holes in the spindle. (More about this in the “Stuff I’ve Had To Replace” section below.)

The Onyx has 29″ wheels with 48 spokes per wheel, sturdy deep  V rims, and 29 x 2.125″ tires. These are “balloon” tires similar to the Schwalbe Big Apples. They take 40 PSI max, but are surprisingly firm at that pressure, and to my surprise don’t deflect or deform while riding. The inner tubes use the standard Schraeder valves (like a car, not the Presta valves like my Bianchi had), and the valve stems appear to be extra-long in order to poke far enough out of the V rims. Many reviewers have mentioned that their tubes went flat quickly, and that they had a hard time finding replacement tubes that had long enough valve stems.

From looking around a bit, it appears that Bontrager 425140 thorn-resistant 29″ x 2″ – 2.4″ inner tubes with 48mm (2″) Schraeder valves should work on the Onyx. Or Bontrager 425138 regular tubes–same specs as the 425140, but not thorn-resistant. Neither of these tubes are available through Amazon.

 

Stuff I’ve Chosen To Replace So Far

Pedals

The first replacement was the pedals. The original pedals on the Onyx were of the “smooth block” style common on comfort bikes, and were unsurprisingly pretty cheaply made, mostly out of plastic. I prefer pedals that grip my shoes, and like steel pedals because they last forever. I replaced the originals with a standard set of steel mountain bike pedals: tough, cleated, and zero maintenance.

Accessories

I next added a few parts: Front and back LED  safety lights, a black water bottle and matching cage (I thought the white cage looked weird), and a friendly “ding-dong” bike bell. Since the Onyx’s handlebars are 1″ diameter (instead of the usual 7/8″), the clamps for the lights and bell just barely fit, but they do fit. Some accessories that are designed to perfectly fit on standard bike handlebars may not have big enough clamps to fit on the Onyx.

 

Stuff I’ve Had To Replace So Far

(AKA the “hate” part of the love-hate relationship.) With the exception of the Bianchi, I’ve never bought a bike that didn’t need futzing, adjustments, and replacement of a few parts (usually the pedals). The Onyx is no different. Many on-line reviewers mentioned a variety of problems with their Onyxes. Given the $120 price tag, I was prepared to invest some time and money into getting everything fixed and solid. Still, I’ve only spent $200 total so far on my Onyx, including replacement parts and accessories.

One of the biggest frustrations with working on a bicycle is that they’re all so non-standardized. Even the ISO standards, which many–but far from all–modern bikes are built to are “multiple choice” standards. For example, there are at least 4 different non-interchangeable widths that an “ISO standard” bottom bracket could come in. And the way that an ISO standard crank arm is held on to an ISO standard bottom bracket spindle could be either via a bolt which threads into the crank arm, or via a nut which threads onto the outside of the spindle. Which width of bottom bracket does your bike use? You’ll need to measure it with a set of calipers to find out; the differences in widths are only a few mm. To replace that ISO standard bottom bracket, you’ll likely need two sets of tools: one set to remove the old bottom bracket, and a different set to install the new one. If your bike has a “standard” one-piece crank or follows the “BMX standard” or one of the other standards rather than ISO? You’ll need to buy an adapter to use an ISO bottom bracket on your bike, if one exists. The Onyx, like many modern bikes, pretty much kinda-sorta follows the ISO standards.

Handlebar Stem

After just two rides, the handlebars started getting “floppy”. The problem ended up not being with the handlebars themselves, but with the handlebar stem. It was designed to have an adjustment pivot in the middle, and the latching teeth that locked the pivot in place were completely stripped. I think this is because the teeth (and the entire stem) were made out of some very soft metal (aluminum?) that simply wasn’t strong enough to handle the stress that they had to take whenever I leaned hard on the handlebars.

4c_1

I replaced the stem with a non-pivoting chromoly stem: 1 1/8″ x 135mm quill, 25.4mm handlebar clamp. These measurements might seem strange at first, but they are correct. If you take a tape measure to the stem, you’ll find that the quill (the part that goes down through the bike frame and attaches to the front fork tube) is 1″ diameter. Many bikes use 1″ handlebar stems. So, what’s with the 1 1/8″? Well, that’s bicycle measurements for you. The 1 1/8″ is actually the size of the tube that the quill will fit in. Or, the Onyx quill is 1 1/8″ nominal, aka 1″ diameter. The clamp’s 25.4mm is also 1″, which is the diameter of the Onyx’s handlebars. Chromoly is a type of steel that is fairly strong but also has a little give to it, so it is popular for bike parts. So, if you need to replace your Onyx handlebar stem, just make sure that the quill is 1 1/8″ diameter and the handlebar clamp is 25.4mm diameter. Taller riders might want to look for a stem longer than 135mm.

Here’s a similar (but shorter) handlebar stem on Amazon. I bought mine on eBay from seller bikemaui; it was cheaper overall and shipped quickly, but it was silver-colored rather than black. Meh, I don’t really care. It works great and is very strong.

Pedal Crank Retaining Bolt

The next problem was with the left pedal–it started feeling a little jerky, or hesitant as I was riding home one day. Shortly after that, it started feeling downright floppy. By that point, I was almost home, so I just walked the bike the rest of the way.

Once I looked at the bike carefully, I found that the left crank arm that connected the pedal to the rest of the bike (the bottom bracket, to be specific) was very loose. The pedal was screwed firmly into the crank, but the crank was not connected tightly to the bike. The only reason the crank had not completely fallen off was because the little plastic dust cover over the bolt that held the crank on had kept the bolt from falling out.

I figured that I hadn’t checked the tightness carefully enough when I first assembled the bike. I got out my wrenches and tightened up the bolt, good and snug.

By the time I got to work the next day, the bolt was completely loose again.

This time I took a careful look at the bolt. It was one that had a “lockwasher” built into the underside of the bolt cap (with little radial serrated “teeth”). Much like with the handlebar stem’s pivot, the lockwasher teeth on the bolt had completely worn down.

I fished around in my junk drawer and found a real lockwasher that fit the bolt, reassembled the crank, and tightened the bolt down. I took the bike for a 10 minute test ride. The bolt was loose again by the end of the ride. Gah. So, I got out the wrenches, tightened the bolt really good and snug… and the head of the bolt came right off. Huh. Now, I wasn’t invoking gorilla strength, I was using a small racheting  wrench and finger strength. No way should I have been able to break that bolt. But I did. Closer inspection revealed that the bolt was made out of very soft metal, possibly aluminum. Really?

26001

After much searching of local stores, I finally found a replacement bolt at Menards (a midwestern hardware store chain). An 8mm-1.00 fine threaded x 20mm length hex cap machine screw. Unlike the Onyx’s original Mystery Metal bolt, the one from Menards is good old boring zinc-plated steel. Menards also had some 16mm length bolts. Since they were only 69 cents each, I bought a couple of both lengths. The 20mm ones are closer to the original bolt’s length, and seem to work better. I bought a spare of each length with the assumption that the bolt on the right crank will eventually come loose too.

I reassembled the crank with the new bolt and lockwasher, put some Loctite Red on the bolt just to be sure, and tightened the bolt down but good. So far, it’s holding just fine. Fingers crossed it stays that way.

Update 6/1/2013: Well, that held for 2 rides. I’m betting that the bottom bracket spindle is made out of Mystery Metal too, and is too soft to properly hold the new bolt. What to try next? I’m thinking to maybe swap out the entire bottom bracket and crank set. I haven’t ever done that before, and don’t have the tools. Plus, I have no idea what size the BB is, and surprisingly none of the online comments I’ve found from the many people who have modified their Onyxes and swapped out their BBs have mentioned what they replaced theirs with. I guess that for experienced bike modders, that’s an easy obvious thing? Somehow I doubt it. The other option is to just break out the JB Weld and fix it permanently. I’m not quite to that point yet.

Really, though, that’s a very small bolt for the job it needs to do. It’s smaller than the two bolts that hold the handlebars in the stem’s clamp. I’m not sure what people were thinking when they decided to use such a small bolt.

Jun 162011
 

Strangely enough, purchasing an Android phone has led me to decide that it’s time to say goodbye to beloved but untrusted Google. I’ve used Google for many years. I really like the services they provide to end users, particularly GMail, Calendar, Blogger, Picasa, Reader, Maps, and of course the search engine–plus several others to lesser degrees. An uncomfortably large portion of my private life is detailed in emails, appointments, photos, driving directions, and reading habits–all stored on Google’s servers. My public life is there too, via Blogger.

Actions speak louder than words, and Google’s actions over the past couple of years have made it very clear that, though I am a user of Google’s services, I am definitely not their customer, but rather the commodity that they analyze, collate, and sell to their real customers. I’ve understood this relationship all along of course, but for many years it seemed benign. I’m not saying that Google is evil or anything like it. They’re simply a for-profit corporation, and they make their money by selling targeted ads, which is to say, they make their money by–indirectly–selling the information about me that I willingly provide to them. It’s time to start moving my life off of servers where I am the commodity, and onto ones where I am, very clearly and explicitly, the customer.

Which is another way of saying that it’s time to start paying for the services I use.

Since I use many of Google’s services, and most of them are as good as you could ask for, replacing them is not a simple task. And, since I’ve used them for many years, it is made more complicated by the sheer amount of data that needs to be moved off–if it can be moved off.

Update 10/10/2012: Overall, the move away from Google has been positive. Services that seemed hard to give up have, over time, been replaced by better options. Considering Google’s hard push into social tracking with their Circles service, I am happy to be largely out of their clutches.

Here are the blow-by-blow details of the transitions, listed by service, and color-coded by ease of transition: green for painless, transitioning to red for significant hassle or problems.

Google Search

I Googled around a bit to find a replacement for Google, and I found one that I’m pretty happy with: DuckDuckGo. DDG uses results from other search engines, adds a bit of smarts and anonymization on top, and there you go. It returns results that are as good or better than Google, it is fast, and it can be added as the default search engine on most browsers (Safari being a notable exception–it’s doable, sort of. But there’s an extension that adds a DDG search field in a control bar at the top, so good enough.) I’m very happy with DDG, and its odd little !features. Easy enough, and done.

Update 10/10/2012: DDG is now unquestionably my search provider of choice. It’s great to be able to type in an address followed by “!maps” or a particularly tricky search request that really needs Google followed by “!g”, rather than having to hunt around on a menu bar to switch to the mode I need; it makes things go faster. I still use Google search when I need it, but usually I don’t.

 

GMail

Moving from GMail is very much a work in progress. Many of my friends, colleagues, and companies that I do business with have my GMail address. And GMail is an excellent product that I really like. I can use it on any computer with a web browser, the search function is extremely useful, and the interface is clean and intuitive. With full IMAP support, I’ve plugged several of my email client apps into it. Here is the process so far:

  1. Find a replacement for GMail. For this, I turned to Tiger Technologies, which provides email along with website hosting, all for a very reasonable price. I’ve been very happy with their web hosting, so I hoped that their email service would be equally good, and it is. It’s not GMail, but it’s close enough. There’s a web-based client provided which looks and acts somewhat like GMail. The search feature isn’t as good, but is adequate. There’s full IMAP support. Plus, I’m already paying for it. Good enough.
  2. Stop using GMail. I now mostly do this. In the sense that I started by logging into GMail and setting it to forward all incoming mail to my replacement address, and after that, I switched over to using the replacement service. I assume that this really means “store and forward”–that Google is still keeping a hidden copy of every email they forward, and using it for analysis and sales. But it keeps me from missing any important emails during the transition period. And, to be clear, I don’t currently have any plans to actually turn off the GMail account completely. I’ll keep it up and forwarding. I just won’t use it any more.
  3. Start using the replacement service. Which I now do. I’ve added my replacement account to all of my clients, and stopped using GMail at all. It hasn’t been painful so far. It may be painful when I really really need to find that email from two years ago that I can barely remember what the subject line said or how I phrased the contents, which GMail is so good at.
  4. Advertise the replacement. I’m doing this in stages. I started with the commercial emails. To do this, I logged into every corporate account I have (cable TV, car insurance, etc., etc., etc…) and updated my email address with them. That was actually a bit more of a hassle than I expected; some companies treat your email address as the primary identifier for your account, so changing it is a big deal. Now comes friends and colleagues–telling them that I have a new email address–which I am doing via the “vacation” feature in GMail, which somehow seems fitting.
  5. Move all of the stored emails off of GMail. At first I thought this was going to be a complicated thing to do. But then I decided that, for older emails, I don’t really need to have them convenient, just reachable. They don’t need to be at my fingertips at all times, they just need to be archived in an electronic box in my electronic basement. In other words, it’s good enough to have them stored on my computer at home (and backed up, of course). I wouldn’t need to transfer or forward them from one online email service to another, I’d just need to download them to my computer.
    1. To do this, I used Thunderbird. I chose Thunderbird because: It stores email messages in an industry-standard non-proprietary format. It’s free. It’s easy to use. It has full POP3 and IMAP support so it can download the emails one way or another. And, most importantly, it has a “work offline” mode, which causes it to download a copy of every single email and store all of them.
    2. I installed a fresh copy of Thunderbird on my computer, set it up to access my GMail account (which is very easy to do nowadays, since Thunderbird comes with GMail settings pre-rolled), and changed the folder it uses for email storage to one that I could find, rather than it’s default folder buried deep and obscurely in its own directories. I then told Thunderbird to sync all of the “folders” in my GMail account for offline use. This caused it to download every single email from GMail. Which took a while. But it did eventually finish. I told it to sync again, just to be safe. No more emails downloaded, good; it got them all. I then poked around at random in several places to make sure that the emails I expected to be there were, in fact, there. And they were. And then ran a backup, so they’re all copied to two different disks. All good.
    3. I then discovered that Thunderbird had downloaded almost everything, but had not downloaded any attachments. A quick DDG search revealed a Thunderbird support page which indicated that setting mail.server.default.mime_parts_on_demand to false would cause everything to be downloaded. So, start from scratch, just to be sure… lots of downloading… random checks of both messages and attachments… and everything looks good.
    4. Finally, I just need to delete the old emails off of GMail. Since I’ve told GMail to forward all new emails to my replacement account, there aren’t any new emails to deal with, just the old ones from before I made the switch. 8800 of them. Select all, select all 8800, move to Trash, empty Trash. And they were gone. That was a stressful–but quick–last step.
Update 10/10/2012: It ends up that having a good email client really is just as important for me as having a good service. I haven’t looked back, and don’t miss Google Mail. The transition was a hassle, but once that was done, the sailing was smooth and continues to be drama-free.

Calendar

Moving from Calendar has been more challenging than I expected. Firstly because I use it more than I would guess. It’s one of those “set and forget” services. Put in someone’s birthday, set for yearly auto-repeat, done. Calendar takes care of the rest. Plus it now has the schedules for all my favorite sports teams. I have yet to find anything out there that really competes with it; surprisingly, there don’t seem to be any WordPress modules that add a private calendar with email reminders; most of them just provide a fancy way to display the dates you blogged on. Apple’s MobileMe (or iCloud?) calendar comes close. I may switch to it. For now, I’m using a hacked-up version of phpScheduleIt installed on my website for now. It’s not great, but it does give me a place for my personal appointments and reminders, and I can get to it from anywhere. I’m continuing to use Google Calendar for my sports reminders.

Update 10/10/2012: It ends up that in the long run, moving away from Google Calendar has been a huge blessing. Now my personal and work calendars are compatible with each other, and I can use the calendar clients on my work PC, Mac at home, Android phone, and iPad to check all of my calendars at once. The only thing that prevented doing that in the past was that Google Calendar didn’t “play nice” with all of the clients.

 

Blogger

Blogger has been a surprisingly easy and satisfying service to switch away from. The very first thing I tried worked very well. Since I already was using Tiger Technology as a website provider, I simply went to the configuration page for my website, clicked the button to add a WordPress blog, gave it an equivalent name to my Blogger blog, and a few seconds later, there it was. I then repeated the process for my two other blogs, and there they were. Of course, none of these new blogs had any content. But it turns out that there’s a WordPress plugin that imports existing blogs into a WordPress blog. The plugin can import Blogger blogs, and it worked very quickly and very well for me; it copied over everything, even comments left by readers, and it preserved all of the dates. (I had already copied over my smallest blog by hand before I discovered the plugin, but I used it for the other two.) All that was left was to choose a new theme for each blog (which I’d wanted to do anyways). WordPress has many, many options for themes.

I’ve used WordPress in the past, and found that it had a lot of features, but could be a pain to get working happily, and was a bit…unique…in the way it did some things. Those days are past. WP is now just as easy to use as Blogger, and it gives you much more control when you want to tweak things a bit. I now enjoy blogging more than I did using Blogger, because I don’t feel hamstrung by Blogger’s limitations.

I’ve deleted my Blogger blogs, and spent some time updating my older blog posts with more pictures and links…something I kept planning to do under Blogger, but never got around to it, mostly because I knew it would be a bit frustrating. Happy trails.

Update 10/10/2012: Still very happy with the move. No regrets. WP is great, and has a zillion more options than Blogger did.

 

Picasa

I was primarily storing pictures in Picasa because that’s where Blogger stored them. Once I ditched Blogger, I deleted the pictures from Picasa. YMMV.

Update 10/10/2012: Still very happy with the move. No regrets. This wasn’t a big deal for me, since I haven’t ever been one to put a lot of pictures online.

 

Reader

Bad news here. Reader is darn hard to replace. There used to be some pretty decent competitors, but it is a small market, and Google Reader drove the others out of business. There are a few DIY alternatives that you can install on your webserver, but the ones I’ve tried have clunky interfaces and non-intuitive rules for marking items as read. There are platform specific RSS readers that are as good or even better than Reader, but then I’d give up the “use it anywhere” quality that Reader shares with all of Google’s services. So far, I haven’t found a reasonable alternative, and I use Reader enough that I’m not willing to give it up cold turkey.

Update 10/10/2012: I ended up writing my own RSS feed reader, which I tuned towards running on low-powered hardware with a small screen (like my Android phone). I emulated the features from Google Reader that I liked, and dropped the rest. This isn’t an option for everyone, but in the end, worked out well for me. As a result, I don’t miss Google Reader at all.

 

Maps

Um. Yeah. I’ve tried using Bing Maps. Good for some things (like giving driving directions that cross the Alaska-Canada border; something that’s very hit-or-miss in Google Maps). But really, there’s no replacement for Google Maps that I’m aware of, at least not yet. So, for now I log out from the Google mothership before using them. Weak sauce, I know.

Update 10/10/2012: I very rarely use Google Maps nowadays. The only use for it I still have is when I need to share a map with others, and they expect it to be on Google Maps. Other than that, I really don’t miss it. I’ve found that Bing Maps is actually better for routing cross-country trips, and the Waze app is much better for around-town directions, as it includes live info on accidents, speed traps, and other transient situations that neither Google Maps nor Bing Maps are really designed to handle.

 

 Posted by at 7:38 PM
May 152011
 

I’ve never been comfortable thinking of myself as a rabid Jobs-worshipping Apple fan, but I do like their products. Particularly the way they rarely push me to the point of either tossing them in the trash or leaving them on a shelf to collect dust. My 4-year-old low-end Mac Mini is still chugging along, happy as a clam, running the latest version of OS X. My iPod nano and iPod touch are both working fine. And my iPad is my most favoritest toy at home. I use it constantly. I stopped taking it to work mostly because I didn’t want anything bad to happen to my preciousssss. But I’ve always been open to trying whatever gadget gets the job done (like my Sansa, for instance, or my Windows netbook and PC). And I’ve heard many good things about Android.

So, I’ve wanted to get an Android phone for a while. OK, I really wanted to get an iPhone;  but it’s hard to justify (or even afford) the $70+ / month plan payments that both AT&T and Verizon iPhones are saddled with. Hello, Android, and hello cheap smartphone plans. Plus, Android is supposed to be fun to tinker with, better than iOS in some ways, and basically the future of smartphones. I want to see that future. I want to see it with my fingers.

I heard about Virgin Mobile’s $25 / month smartphone plan–no hidden fees or weird taxes, $25 flat, no contract. And that $25 includes “unlimited” 3G, and 300 talk minutes. There are currently two Android phones available with that plan, a Samsung with a slide-out keyboard and poor reviews, and the $200 LG Optimus V with no keyboard and good reviews. I figured that I could manage $25 a month, and my tax refund almost covered the cost of the phone. So, I bought one. And bought a 16 GB microSD card for $25 on Amazon to give it a little more space than the 2 GB card that came with the phone. And a $25 top-up Virgin Mobile card while I was at the grocery store. Total cost to get the phone up and running: $250, plus sales tax. And if I ever decide to drop the Virgin Mobile plan, there’s no “early termination” charge or any such BS. I just stop buying re-up cards. Even so, I’d still have a pretty nifty gadget that works fine over WiFi.

Here are my impressions of my first Android gadget.

The Good:

  • To my delight, the phone part of the Optimus is quite good. Even at 2 bars, I still can understand people clearly. Good stuff. I don’t expect smartphones to be good phones, but this one is quite usable. I wish I could say the same for the Android dialer app, which is very aggressive about fading away (so you can’t accidentally press buttons on the keypad with your face while talking); it makes it very difficult to punch in extra digits after you’ve dialed a number. But I’ve read that there are other dialer apps available which work much better than the stock one.
  • The rest of the Optimus isn’t bad. It’s sturdy, lightweight, and has a very bright, readable screen. The shell is pretty much all plastic, but isn’t ugly. I haven’t bought a case or screen protector for it, and it’s still fine after months of use. I do carry it in a hand-knitted Hodag sleeve.
  • The camera works surprisingly well, and takes pretty good pictures, even close-ups. Good enough that I’ll probably take this phone on vacation rather than my beloved Kodak V210. But I’ll miss that amazing wide-angle lens, which takes fantastic panoramic shots. Well, they’re small. Maybe I’ll take both the phone and the camera.
  • One more Thumbs Up to Virgin Mobile for the $25/month plan with no contract, “unlimited” 3G, and 300 talk minutes per month. Re-ups can be done via cards I buy at the grocery store–no automatic recurring charges on my credit card, no unexplained price creep. Sweet! But, hey, VM, fix your website. It’s very pretty, but that huge informative footer at the bottom makes it difficult to type data into forms that are partially covered by that footer.
  • And another Thumbs Up to LG and Virgin Mobile for not thinking that they need to “improve” Android. Unlike many phone manufacturers and carriers, LG and VM have pretty much left Android on the Optimus V alone; it’s almost straight stock, pure 2.2 goodness from Google. And supposedly, LG will upgrade it to Android 2.3 one of these days. Or not. Well, that’s a common issue on Android phones, and if it is never upgraded, I won’t mind.
  • A big Thumbs Up to all the choices out there for Android phones. Admittedly, the phones are all pretty similar, outside of keyboard or not, screen size / quality, and computing power. But it is nice to be able to choose a cheap phone with some limitations (see below) from a smaller carrier with a bargain plan. With iPhone, it’s either AT&T or Verizon, and both their plans are currently almost identical: on-contract and expensive.
  • Notifications on Android are really, really nice. When you get an email or SMS message, or an app finishes doing something in the background, little icons appear up in the status bar at the top of the phone, along with the time, battery level, and signal strength icons. Put your finger on the status bar, pull down, and down comes a list that covers the screen. All the notifications about the emails and SMS messages and whatall are listed; tap on one of the notifications, and you are whisked to the app that posted the notification. Very nice, very intuitive, and a couple of taps on the Back button takes you back to what you were doing before you looked at the list. The status bar can get pretty cluttered when you’ve got notifications from more than one app waiting, but you get used to that quickly.
  • Officially, Virgin Mobile doesn’t allow using your Android phone as a mobile WiFi hotspot. And, in fact, the configuration switch to turn it on is missing. Unofficially, you’re exactly 1 app away from enabling it. It’s amusingly trivial to do, and it seems to work fine. I don’t have any real plans to use it, but it’s nice to know it’s available if I ever need it in a pinch while traveling.
  • I don’t know why, but using 2D barcodes to link to apps has never caught on in the iOS world. Maybe the barcodes are just too ugly for Steve Jobs’ tastes or something. But it’s pretty handy to be surfing the web on my Mac, stumble across an app that sounds interesting, bring up the 2D barcode for the app on the monitor–all Android apps seem to have one, scan it with a barcode reader app on my phone, and bingo, download and install the app. It’s a very fast and painless process. It takes far longer to explain than to do.
  • I’ve read over and over again about how wonderful Widgets on Android are. Well, they’re OK, and I could see how having a few on my iPod touch would be nice. I’ve always been a big fan of Apple’s Desk Accessories–I used them heavily back in the early MacOS days–and that’s pretty much exactly what Android Widgets are. So maybe I’m jaded. To my mind, Android Widgets are the same as OS X Widgets, which are the same as Desk Accessories. And when you’ve seen one weather or stock market or email Widget, you’ve pretty much seen them all, and I saw them all 20 years ago. There is also a real downside to having Widgets on a phone: they run all the time, so they reduce battery life, and take up a smidge of computing power each.
  • The integrated voice recognition works quite well for many tasks. It doesn’t work so well for others, like recognizing arbitrary words when searching on Google. It also sends the speech to Google’s servers to do the heavy lifting, so it needs network connectivity to work, and can be a bit laggy at times, but those are small complaints for something that really makes the phone easier to use overall.
  • Google Maps is transformed into a very good GPS system on Android, just as good (if not better) than anything made by Garmin or TomTom. The only downside is that it needs a solid 3G connection to work.
  • For having a 600 MHz CPU, the phone is no slouch. Sometimes the user interface stalls or lags for a moment or two, but it basically hangs in there. My iPod touch, which has a slower CPU, is definitely smoother and faster feeling, but the Optimus is nowhere near as bad as I expected. I guess that’s a good thing.
  • I like Amazon’s new Android app store. They give away a different app, totally free, every day. I’ve snagged a few of them. Unsurprisingly, the Amazon app store is significantly better organized and run than Google’s market–even with the new upgrades to the market over the last few days.
  • On a related note, I have yet to actually purchase an Android app with cash money. This is in stark contrast to the hundreds of dollars I’ve spent on apps for my iPad and iPod touch.
    • I think that part of the reason is because all of the basic utility apps (and most of the popular social apps) are free on Android. That’s nice. And some of the free apps are really handy, like the widget that gives you individual control over the WiFi, 3G, and phone radios, to better control battery drain. Or the app that automatically switches the phone to “airplane mode” and turns off all the radios when you press the power button. Nice!
    • But beyond that, the apps currently available for Android are very weak sauce compared to what is out there for iOS. It isn’t a question of there being more iOS apps, but that there are far, far more interesting, high-quality apps for iOS. The difference between the cool toys and excellent games available on the App Store and the poor clones (or complete lack of anything equivalent) on the Market is shocking. I have yet to find a single non-free Android app that I’ve had the slightest interest in. Maybe that will change as Android continues to gain popularity, but it’s been around and popular for a while now, and the Market is still understocked.
    • Another reason that I have yet to buy an app is that I don’t trust Google’s Market with my credit card. Not because I think they’ll overcharge my card or something, but because it still seems very beta…and very Wild West. I probably will buy an Android app one of these days, but when I do, it will almost certainly be through the nice, well-run Amazon app store, not Google’s mostly-baked Market. I trust Amazon to handle sales correctly and to resolve problems should they arise. It’s what they do, and they do it very well. Google has yet to demonstrate that they deserve that trust. Google is really good at Search. They’ve yet to become good at Store.
    • Update 6/12/2011: I’ve had the phone for almost 2 months now. I still have yet to buy an app for it. I have snagged several free apps from the Amazon app store. But I haven’t used any of them for more than a few minutes. I’m mentally ready to buy an Android app–heck, I want to buy one just to finally get that over with and say that I have. But the only Android app I’ve found that I use a lot is K-9 mail (which is a pretty decent, and free, email client). Meanwhile, I’ve purchased several apps for my iPad and iPod touch. So it goes.

The Bad:

  • You know how Android phones can run Flash and iPhones can’t? Well, guess what? My Android phone can’t run Flash. In fact, many of the cheaper Android phones can’t. They use computer chips that aren’t supported (yet?) by Adobe. Funny how that fact never seems to be worth mentioning by the Android faithful. It isn’t clear if the problem is because the phone’s hardware just isn’t powerful enough to run Flash smoothly, or if Adobe has started with the high-end phones and simply hasn’t gotten around to making the software work on the cheap phones. Either way, no Flash. But the one and only thing I’ve ever wished I had Flash on my iPad for is playing FarmVille and CityVille. Other than that, for me, it’s a non-issue. Except for being bemused by Google’s claims that Android phones run Flash. Some do, some don’t.
  • Like with Widgets, I read repeatedly about how multitasking is, like, way betterer on Android than iOS. Meh. They both work, and both get the job done, in slightly different ways. As near as I can tell, iOS does a better job of killing background apps cleanly without getting us users involved, but Android gives us a much clearer picture of exactly what all is currently running. So, here I was all excited about this wonderful thing Android can do better. After using Android for a while, I have no idea what all the fuss is about. Ultimately, it’s a technical challenge for the coders, but a very small issue for end users. Seriously, who cares?
  • I didn’t ever like using the dinky on-screen keyboard on my iPod touch, but somehow Android managed to take a bad experience and make it worse. On the plus side, the Optimus comes with the Swype alternative keyboard pre-installed, but I guess I’m just not a swyper. I much prefer poking at the screen to dragging my finger around on it. I’ve tried other alternatives to the stock Android keyboard out there that are supposed to be better. Meh. My iPod touch still reigns supreme as the best of the worst, king of the tiny marginally usable on-screen keyboards. Apple should be proud.
  • This is a minor nit, but the way that Android handles USB connections to the desktop computer is fussy and fragile compared to iTunes. It gets the job done, and dragging-n-dropping music and videos straight from my computer’s desktop to the phone’s microSD card is nice, but authorizing USB mode, then digging around in folders with user-hostile names like DCIM (or simply confusing ones, like the three folders all named “downloads” or something very similar) is annoying compared to the one-step iPhone process of “drag whatever-it-is onto iTunes and it’ll be put where it belongs and organized automatically”. The USB connection has locked up a few times, but Android always seems to recover after a minute or two.
  • There are some aspects to Android that are just clunky. For example: How you “back up” or “undo” in an app is inconsistent: sometimes you swipe on the screen; sometimes you tap on an on-screen button; sometimes the only way to do it is to move your finger off the screen and use the physical Back button, which can be mildly jarring. I didn’t appreciate how consistently consistent iOS and its apps are until I used Android.
  • Similarly, the Menu button is a strange jack of all trades. What it’s used for varies wildly from app to app, even between apps from Google. Sometimes it’s brings up a configuration screen; other times, it displays secondary options; and occasionally it does nothing at all. To me, it feels like a holdover from the pre-iPhone smartphones, a relic that Google should have left behind. I’ve come to have a Android rule of thumb: when poking and swiping every which way doesn’t seem to work, try pressing the Menu button; whatever it is that I’m trying to do is probably hidden under that button. I really dislike the Menu button; I think that Google should simply get rid of it, and have apps display an on-screen button of the appropriate kind and at the appropriate time instead.
  • Just to be complete: The Home button is fine, and seems to be equivalent to The Button on an iPhone. The Search button is a shortcut to doing a Google search through the browser; I used it once just to confirm what it did, then promptly forgot that it existed. It seems to be a button that Google put there primarily because it leads directly to Google’s big moneymaker: search and targeted ads.

The Ugly:

  • As Google becomes a larger, more successful, and more profit-oriented enterprise, I trust them less and less, to the point that I don’t trust them at all nowadays. (Which is not to say that I trust Apple or Amazon or Microsoft more. I don’t. But I’ve always been more careful with them than with Google, because they never said that they’d not be evil. They’re aggressive for-profit corporations, and have always acted the part.) So, I’m growing ever more leery of Google’s increasing harvesting and exploitation of any and all data that they can collect. Which, for me, is a lot of data. I’ve pretty much had my entire on-line life on Google’s servers for several years. But I never trusted them as much as I would have liked to, and now that trust is gone. In terms of my Android phone, as soon as I activated the Optimus, it merrily connected to the Google mothership, and sync-ed up with my GMail account. And with every other Google account I have: pictures, blogs, maps, RSS feeds, you name it. A lot of stuff. A lot of stuff. It was a bit shocking to see it all collected in one place, so effortlessly and so rapidly. And to realize that all that stuff is on the servers of a company that makes most of their money off of analyzing the data on their servers, and using it to sell targeted ads (and possibly some of the info itself) to their clients–other large corporations. So, while there’s not much I can do about my personal data that Google already has,  I’m now actively moving my life away from Google, and will keep a suspicious eye on exactly what information is being stored on this phone, and thereby eventually on Google’s servers. It won’t be much.
  • This leads to a convenience issue: Is the phone mine, or is it Google’s? If Google’s servers go offline, much of what makes my smartphone uniquely useful go with them. This is because Android follows Google’s approach of centralized design. Android doesn’t just check in for messages and email, it synchronizes lots of data with Google’s servers, and relies on them for much of its magic. Without those servers, there’s no Google Maps, no integrated voice command. In contrast, if Apple’s servers go down, almost all of an iPhone continues to function. You lose the ability to buy or update apps, but that’s about it. Android has an Achilles’ heel, a single point of failure, and that point is Google itself. The centralized design is also network-heavy; it uses a lot of traffic, and requires a reliable, fast connection to make it work. To me, it seems like a design that is bound to be outdated within–at most–a few years, as smartphones’ computing abilities continue to grow: Why have a remote server do speech processing, when the phone has the hardware to do it itself? Why fetch maps and route-planning data when it can easily be stored locally? Ultimately, to me, Android’s design appears to be as much for Google’s benefit as it is for mine.
  • I actually ran out of space to install apps. I’m not kidding. With a 16 GB storage card with about 1 GB used. And maybe 50 apps on the phone, if that many. And they’re all small apps, like maybe 10 megs each, tops. It seems that even though Android is now capable of installing apps on the microSD card, it still needs to put a few megs of info per app on the internal storage (and many apps won’t play nice on the microSD card at all, and must live entirely on the internal storage). The Optimus V, like many of the low-end Android phones, has only a couple hundred megs available for those little slivers of apps that don’t go on the microSD card. Well, when you’ve got a bunch of little slivers, the space they need adds up, and the next thing you know: plenty of space on the microSD card, but no more apps for you, because the internal storage is completely full. D’oh. Coming from my iPad and iPod touch where I literally have hundreds of apps installed on each, and many of the iPad game apps are well over a gig in size each, it’s a shock. As in: This is broken, Google. Fix it.
  • I thought the iPhone had bad battery life. Even with light usage, I had to be careful to plug it in at the end of the day every day. But this Android phone brought battery suck to a new low. After a full charge, and before I installed any new apps, with it just sitting there, screen off, it was dead after 5 hours. Yikes. I was able to get things under control by installing the app that gave me control over the radios, and the app that auto-switched to airplane mode when I hit the power button. As a result, the phone goes for several days of occasional light use without needing a recharge. The downside is that it won’t receive phone calls except while I’m using it. But for my purposes, that’s fine. I never intended to actually use it as a phone–I’ve got a throwaway Verizon contract-free dumb phone on a much cheaper plan for that. But come on, Google. A phone that you need to either charge twice a day or take direct control of the battery management of is more hassle than it’s worth. Apple is kicking your butt here. This is a bad joke. Fix it.
  • I can’t ever recall having to do a hard reset on any of my iOS devices. Ever. I wouldn’t even know how. Within the first 2 days of using the Optimus, it completely locked up and couldn’t recover no matter what I did. Twice. Both times it happened while accessing the 2 GB microSD card that came with the phone (so perhaps it was a bad card–but still). Pulling the battery solved the problem both times. A brutal solution, but a reliable one. At least the Optimus has a battery cover that’s easy to remove. Google is infamous for releasing stuff that’s still beta-quality, and clearly Android is no different from their other software. If Android is going to rely on microSD cards for basic functionality, then it should be able to handle them, good, bad, defective, whatever. No excuses. In a device sold to regular consumers rather than techies, low-level hardware stuff like this should just work; Android should never have a problem that requires pulling the battery to solve. This is broken, Google. Fix it.

Overall, I think the Optimus V is a fine phone for the price, and Virgin Mobile’s plan is a very good deal. Android 2.2 is pretty OK, but it’s definitely not iOS, either in terms of robustness or user-friendliness. The apps currently available on the Android Market are either utilitarian or uninteresting. Battery management is far more hands-on than it should or could be. I would strongly recommend this phone to anyone who likes gadgets that are in and of themselves fun to tinker with, or who is looking for a bargain phone that can be made quite usable with a little sweat equity. I would not recommend it to anyone who is at all technologically phobic; anyone who is concerned about Google’s access to the data stored on their phone; or anyone who is looking for a phone that just works.

Update 6/12/2011: I still completely agree with my earlier assessment. I’ve been carrying the phone with me as a replacement for my iPod touch for almost two months now, and I use it only slightly more than I used the iPod, which is faint praise. I use it more because I can check my email without having to connect to WiFi (and enter a login and password to access the WiFi, which is a serious hassle on a device this size). I listen to music about as often; it sounds about as good as on the iPod, and ol’ WinAmp is usable without being overly “helpful”. I was thinking that I might tinker with the phone: root it and install an XDA ROM. But I’ve yet to find a compelling reason to do so. Perhaps when an Android 3.1 ROM is available for this model (if one ever is). In the mean time, it’s a good phone for a good price. Android is OK, but it’s not iOS. The uneven requirements for usage of the Menu and Back buttons is a constant irritant. I’ve tried different browsers, but haven’t found one nearly as good as Atomic on the iPod. Long term, I hope to replace this phone with an iPhone when or if ever one becomes available on a contract-free low-cost plan. Until then, the Optimus is an adequate placeholder.

Update 10/5/2011: I am fairly happy with the phone overall. For $25 / month, I’m quite happy with the Virgin Mobile service; it is an honest bargain. VM has since raised the rate to $35/month, but my phone is grandfathered in at the older rate. I’d still consider the service a bargain at $35 / month.

The phone is an excellent feature phone. Is it a $200 feature phone? No. But that’s pretty much exactly how I use it:

  • As a phone (it is a pretty good phone, though the Android dialer drives me crazy)
  • To take pictures (the camera is good and is easy to use)
  • To check email (using the K9 email client, which is a little buggy, but is free)
  • To listen to music and podcasts (using WinAmp, which is pretty good)
  • To check a mobile-web-based city bus tracker (using the Dolphin web browser, which is adequate for this one use, but is free).

There is nothing special about any of these uses; I can do all of them on my backup $20 feature phone, but they’re easier and faster on this phone. However, that’s where my usage of this phone ends. I find that once I start trying to use other apps or Android features, I quickly end up in the Android quagmire:

  • Responsiveness goes down because some app is doing something or other in the background. Screen touches are ignored, or worse, are queued up until the phone is less busy, then processed inappropriately. Menus go from sorta-sliding to stuck. It’s amazing how many apps seem to do this. Once you’ve launched them, they never really go away, they just linger around and occasionally decide that they need to do something that sucks up the CPU.
  • All those lingering apps also kill the battery. Which is short-lived enough as it is, thanks.
  • The phone often freezes within moments of unlocking the front screen, because Android has zero self-control and tries to do everything at once. Multiple app updates are all started as soon as the phone has a 3G signal. Every single app (weather, text messages, email) jumps onto the dogpile, all trying to update at the same time. Android thrashes to the point that it is completely unresponsive and the battery starts getting very warm, or completely locks up and the battery cools back down. I’ve turned off most of the automatic settings that cause this problem to happen, but the Marketplace won’t work at all unless background communication is allowed, and that opens the barn door. Oh, good, another chance to see if holding down the power button will cause Android to shut down cleanly (nope) or it’s time to fix Android by pulling the battery.

So, I stick to the basic, safe apps that don’t seem to cause too many problems. I keep most of the automatic features turned off. And as a result, I have a very fancy feature phone.

As soon as Virgin Mobile or one of their many competitors offers an iPhone 4 on a similar plan, my fancy Android feature phone goes on Craigslist.

Jun 292008
 

I keep having the same thought lately: RSS Feeds, microblogging services like Twitter, and computer system log files are very similar, and maybe are even different faces of the same animal.

All three have the following features:

  • A list of messages is provided.
  • The messages are listed in chronological order.
  • Each message is available for a limited time, after which it is deleted or archived.
  • The messages are short, generally under a few hundred characters.
  • The messages proxy for or imply longer communications.
  • There is a well-advertised central repository for the messages.
  • Theme-specific subrepositories can be created as desired.
  • The method for adding new messages is well-defined.

There are some differences, and, perhaps, ways to think about how to improve all three by cross-pollinating their features:

RSS feeds provide both short messages and links to more detailed messages. They are relatively expensive to create, since their format is more complex and the detailed messages require separate handling. They are usually created by webmasters in parallel with web pages, or are generated automatically when new web pages are created. Some RSS message systems give the creator the ability to “tag” messages–to add keywords that allow for easy topical searches.

Twitter-style messages (or “tweets”) provide only the message itself. They are relatively easy to create. They are generally created by non-technical users, and often are created on standard cell phones.

Log files messages provide only the messages themselves. They are easy for computers to create. They’re generally created automatically, as a result of applications and system services running on computers. They tend to have a low signal-to-noise ratio; the reader may have to wade through a lot of unimportant messages to find the critical ones. But most logging facilities have the ability to control the “importance” level of messages that are actually added to the log files, and the applications that create the log messages can tag the importance level of each message.

There are currently many cross-creations between RSS feeds, microblogs, and logfiles. For example, some logfiles are available as RSS feeds. Some robots create microblogs.

But I think it might be useful to have a service that supports all three: a super-RSS service. On the message creation side, the server could accept new messages via standard RSS files; via tweets created on cell phones or web browsers; or via syslog calls. The messages could be simple–just a line of text. Or they could be complex, and include “importance” tags, keywords, and links to more detailed information sources.

On the message reading side, the reader application could filter the messages by importance, author / source / friend, and keywords. Messages above an importance threshold could be handled differently than those below the threshold. For example, “critical” messages could be forwarded to a cell phone via SMS, while less important ones would simply be queued up in the reader.

One area where this super-RSS system could be very useful would be for users of cloud / grid / mesh / distributed application servers, like Condor, Google App Engine, or Amazon’s S3 Web Services. Users would have a single place to look where they could find messages from others on the same team (“IMPORTANT: I’ve just updated the user interface, let me know what you think–Joe”), warnings from system administrators (“CRITICAL: The servers will be down Sunday for maintenance”), and status updates from the computers running in their cloud (“CRITICAL: Error. Simulation halted. Cannot access database.”; “DETAIL: Node 165 opened file ‘profile3.txt'”). The messages would be in chronological order, and the user could choose to view only those that are of “critical” or “important” level, and ignore the “general information” or “detail” messages.

More thoughts on this later.

 Posted by at 4:41 AM
Jun 252008
 

Apple iPod Nano 2G Woe. My iPod Nano 1 GB is full. It is full of songs, and can’t hold one more. I’ve done everything I can to alleviate the situation, deleted random songs, albums, and podcasts, but to no avail. Clearly, the only proper solution is to get an iPhone. Because, you know, the iPhone has more storage space on it. That’s why I need one. But the iJuju will have to wait for my checkbook to reach Apple-compatible levels, no matter how many rationalizations I come up with for buying one.

Sansa e260 So, as a sort of nicotine patch for my iHabit, I recently bought a “throwaway” MP3 player, a refurbished Sansa e260 MP3 player ($45 including shipping from Woot.com). The e260 is a 4 GB iClone, with a shape, size, color, and button layout that are remarkably similar to my Nano, with the following exceptions–the e260:

  • Is about twice as thick as the Nano.
  • Is much heavier; 2.7 ounces versus the Nano’s featherlight 1.4.
  • Has a slightly larger screen, at 1.8″ diagonal 176 x 220 pixels, as compared to the Nano’s 1.5″ diagonal 176 x 132 screen. That’s enough to make Solitaire much easier to see on the e260.
  • Has the Play / Pause and Menu buttons reversed.
  • Has a light-up scroll wheel that actually turns.
  • Has an FM tuner.
  • Has a replaceable batter.
  • Has a slot for a microSD card, so that additional songs and videos can be stored there. Scroll down to read more about this.

It is otherwise a very faithful (if less elegant) replication of the second-generation Nano.

Overall, I am surprised and delighted to say that the e260, particularly when combined with the remarkable Rockbox F/OSS upgrade, is a great little player. With Rockbox installed, it can do everything the Nano can do, plus a lot more. My favorite things to do are to listen to a random selection of jazz while playing “Xobox” (a Qix clone), “Jewels” (a Bejeweled clone), or good old Solitaire. I can even play Doom, though the screen is a bit small to see exactly what’s going on.

There are, however, some major caveats.

Caveat #1: Officially, the e260 isn’t Mac-compatible. Sansa makes it extremely clear that the e200 series (which includes the e250, e260, e270, and e280, but no actual e200) are in no way compatible with Macintoshes, and that even contemplating putting both in the same room will lead to mass panic, fire in the skies, cats and dogs living together, and a world-ending event that would put the Large Hadron Collider to shame. Which is, of course, an open invitation to us Mac people to find out for ourselves. Clearly, the e260 appears to be a USB drive to Windows, so it probably will do the same for Macs, yes? Well, yes. Sort of. More about that under Caveat #3. (Note that there is a similar yet different e200R series, of which I know little except that they need additional tweaking to support Rockbox. And that they’re not Mac-compatible either.)

Caveat #2: You’re on your own. Which is to say, all the handy and useful Sansa utilties are Windows-only. For us iHeads, that’s business as usual, and no reason to get excited. Some sort of Windows capability (dual-boot via Boot Camp, virtualized Windows via Parallels or VMWare Fusion, etc.) is needed to run the Sansa utilities, mostly just to upgrade the e260’s firmware to the latest version. For Mac users who are comfortable with the UNIX command line, everything else can be done via the Mac. So, if you don’t care that your Sansa has old firmware, you can get by without needing Windows at all.

Caveat #3: The e260 does indeed show up as a removable USB drive on the Mac (on the Desktop as “Sansa e260″ and on the command line as /Volumes/Sansa e260), but it takes a little futzing. If you go into the Settings menu on the e260, there is a “USB Mode” setting, which by default is set to the Windows-friendly but Mac-hostile “MTP” mode. To work with a Mac, it needs to be set to “MSC” mode. In fact, my experience has been that both modes need to be used to get a reliable connection between my Mac and the Sansa. Here’s the dance that always works for me:

  1. Before connecting the USB cable between the Mac and Sansa, power up the Sansa. (If you’ve installed Rockbox, be sure to press and hold the “<<" button while pressing the Power button. Don't let the Sansa automatically turn itself on when you connect the USB cable. This is a complex tango and the Sansa will refuse to cooperate if you don't follow each step precisely and in order.)
  2. On the Sansa, go to “Settings”, then “USB Mode”, and select “MTP” (yes, the one that doesn’t work). Press the “Menu” button to leave “Settings”.
  3. Connect the Mac and Sansa with the USB cable.
  4. Wait a few seconds for nothing to happen. The Sansa will show “Connected”, but it won’t show up on the Mac.
  5. Unplug the USB cable.
  6. On the Sansa, go to “Settings”, then “USB Mode”, and select “MSC”. Press the “Menu” button to leave “Settings”.
  7. Connect the Mac and Sansa with the USB cable.
  8. Wait a few seconds. The Sansa should show “Connected”, then “Writing”. It’ll show “Writing” for the rest of the time it is connected. The “Sansa e260″ removable drive should show up on the Mac’s Desktop. If this doesn’t happen, start over from step 1. Don’t skip any steps.
  9. Drag files from the Mac to the Sansa drive, music into the “MUSIC” folder, photos into the “PHOTO” folder, videos into the “VIDEO” folder.
  10. When done, use the “Eject” icon next to the “Sansa e260″ icon in the Finder on the Mac to close down the connection.
  11. Disconnect the USB cable.
  12. The Sansa will probably restart and then do its “Refresh Database” navel-gazing.

Caveat #4: The Sansa really likes to do a “Refresh Database” operation every single time you add or delete any files from it. Every single time. The e260 will start up, show the “Refresh Database” window with a progress bar below it, and slowly do the update. Once you’ve got a few gigs of stuff on it, this will take over a minute. And will quickly transform from cute quirk into an annoying time-waster.

Caveat #5: Music from the iTunes store? Officially, no. You can transfer songs from the iTunes Store to your iPod, but not to the Sansa, because they’re in a M4P or M4A format that the Sansa can’t handle, and because they’re encrypted to protect them from Music Pirates, yarrr. However, the Sansa can handle standard MP3 files, and there are ways to convert the iTunes songs into generic MP3s. (Hint: iTunes can be set to burn playlists of songs onto a standard audio CD. This can be a good way to safeguard your iTunes investment by making a safety backup of your purchases. iTunes can also be set to import standard audio CDs into generic MP3 files. And those generic MP3 files can be copied from iTunes to other places on the Mac, like, say, removeable USB drives.)

Rockbox So, with the Sansa caveats out of the way, it’s time to look at Rockbox. Rockbox is, like many F/OSS efforts, both amazing and frustrating. It works very well, has a ton of features, and has a user interface that takes a bit of getting used to. Here are a few important things to know about the combination of the Sansa e200 series, Rockbox, and the Mac:

  • It’s easiest to use the Rockbox installer / utility and do a complete installation of Rockbox rather than to download the latest build of Rockbox itself and install it by hand. The installer will download and correctly install all of the zillion and one bits that make up the Rockbox universe, including all the themes (skins), fonts, games, everything. You can do this by hand on the Mac, but you’ll be downloading, unzipping, and copying a lot of files. The Windows version of the utility seems to work a little better than the Mac version, but they both get the job done.
  • Once you’ve installed Rockbox, the original Sansa firmware will still be on the e260. Rockbox doesn’t overwrite it, but does a sort of Boot Camp type of dual-boot. To cause the Sansa to bypass Rockbox and run normally do this:
    • Press the Power button to turn the Sansa off.
    • Press and hold the “<<" (Previous or Left) button.
    • While continuing to hold the “<<" button, press the Power button. The Sansa's screen will show the SanDisk logo, then turn white, then show a bunch of techie-looking text starting with "Rockbox boot loader", then will start up normally.
    • Release both the “<<" and Power buttons.

  • Rockbox is playlist oriented. Every time you select a song, Rockbox creates a playlist on the fly made up of the album that the song is part of. You can add songs to playlists and save the playlists right on the Sansa, but it’s kind of a pain to do. However, it is possible to create playlists using the Mac.
  • Rockbox uses the very simple text-based M3U format for playlists. Essentially, the M3U playlist file is just a list of filenames, one filename per line. You can edit an M3U playlist in TextEdit. The contents will look something like this:
    ./MUSIC/Eagles/Their Greatest Hits/Eagles—Tequila-Sunrise.mp3
    ./MUSIC/OMC/How Bizzare/02 How Bizarre (Mix).mp3
    ./MUSIC/Denis Leary/No Cure for Cancer/03 A_____e.mp3
    ./MUSIC/Elvis Costello/My Aim Is True/Elvis-Costello—-The-Angels-Wanna-Wear-My
    –Red-Shoes.mp3
  • To create a “master” playlist which contains every song on your Sansa, you can do this:
    • Start the Terminal app.
    • Type the following into Terminal, substituting “e240″ or “e280″ for “e260″ if you have a different model, and be careful to include the quotes and to make sure that the slashes all tilt the right way:
    • cd “/Volumes/Sansa e260″
      find . -name “*.mp3″ > all.m3u
      find . -name “*.MP3″ >> all.m3u

  • Now you can use the Finder to make copies of “all.m3u” (make sure to create the copies in the same folder on the Sansa as the “all.m3u” file, and not on the Mac), and edit the copies with TextEdit. For example, you can make a copy and call it “jazz.m3u”, then edit the “jazz.m3u” copy in TextEdit and delete all the songs from it that are not jazz. You can make similar copies for different musical genres, country, world music, whatever. Just be sure to edit the copies and to not edit the original “all.m3u”.
  • To edit the M3U files in TextEdit, DO NOT double-click on them. This will open them in iTunes, which will take forever and will cause iTunes to attempt to import all the songs. Instead, right-click or cntl-click on the M3U file to bring up the pop-up menu, then select “Open With”. Select “Other…”, and choose TextEdit. You’ll need to do this with every file, since the Mac is convinced that M3U files should be opened with iTunes, even if you click on the “Always Open With” box.
  • Note that you’ll need to recreate the “all.m3u” file each time you add new music to your Sansa. And you’ll need to copy and paste the new songs from the “all.m3u” files to the appropriate playlists.
  • You might think, “Wait a second. iTunes can export playlists, even as text files. Why can’t I just use my iTunes playlists instead of going through all this hassle?” Well, the problem is that iTunes can’t export an M3U format playlist. And the other problem is even if you use one of the iTunes-M3U translation apps out there, you’ll still need to hand-edit the resulting M3U files to fix the pathnames of the files, since they’ll have the Mac pathnames instead of the Sansa pathnames. And the other other problem is that if you use the workaround hinted at in Caveat #5, the track numbers embedded in the filenames won’t match up between the Mac and the Sansa, so you’ll have to hand-edit those as well. By the time you do all that editing, you might as well do it this way. Once you’ve done it a couple of times, it is easy, if a little tedious.
  • To play your newly created playlists in Rockbox, you need to do something a little odd. Don’t select “Playlists” from the main menu, as you might expect to do. Rather, select “Files”. Scroll down to the M3U playlist file that you want to listen to, and click the Select button. Rockbox will immediately start playing the first song in the playlist. You can press the Menu button and turn Shuffle and Repeat modes on if you want.
  • You can also go to the “Plugins” menu, then “Games”, and then play a game like Solitaire or Jewels while your music continues to play. (Hint: In Solitaire, to get the next card from the deck, press the “Record” button on the side of the Sansa. Everything else is done with the front buttons and scrollwheel.)
  • Rockbox is highly configurable. You can change the theme (or skin), fonts, and just about everything else. But be prepared to edit some configuration files to really tweak your Rockbox settings. The most important one is in /Volumes/Sansa e260/.rockbox and is called “config.cfg”. If you want to change the background image under Rockbox (to, say, a picture of your dogs or kids), you’ll need to edit this file, and you’ll need to use Terminal to get to it, since the “.rockbox” folder won’t show up in the Finder. You’ll also need to resize or crop the picture to exactly 176 x 220 (176 pixels wide by 220 tall) and save it as a BMP file on the Sansa. You can do this in Preview or another photo editing app. Then add or change this line in “config.cfg” to reflect the name and location of your picture:
    backdrop: /cutepups.bmp

Kingston 2 GB microSD card and USB AdapterThe Sansa e200 series comes with a microSD card slot. I purchased a Kingston 2 GB microSD card (which came with a USB adapter for the card), plus a SanDisk 4 GB microSDHC card to see how the Sansa handles them.

You can put additional music or videos on a microSD or microSDHC card and play them in the Sansa player. This capacity of the cards supported by this slot appears to be a source of great confusion. I’ve read that some versions of the e200 series can only support microSD cards that are 2 GB in capacity or smaller, while newer versions can support the larger microSDHC cards. I’ve also read that using Rockbox gives all of the e200 versions the ability to handle the microSDHC cards. Here’s my experience so far:

Card Capacity 2 GB 2 GB 4 GB
Card Format FAT-16 FAT-32 FAT-32
Card Type microSD microSD microSDHC
Mac Can Read/Write Card via Kingston microSD USB Adapter? Yes Yes Yes
Sansa Can See Card? Yes Yes NO
Sansa Can Play Music From Card? Yes Yes NO
Mac Can Read/Write It via Sansa USB Cable ? Yes Yes (If card is inserted after Mac “sees” Sansa) NO
Rockbox Can See Card? Yes Yes Yes
Rockbox Can Read Card? Yes Yes Yes
Rockbox Can Write Files To Card? Yes Yes Yes

I have a “version 1″ e260 (as opposed to the newer e200R and “version 2″ series). When i put a 2 GB microSD card into the e260 and connect it to my Mac via USB, I see two disks show up: “Sansa e260″ (the e260’s built-in flash drive) and “NO NAME” (the microSD card). The disks appear to be similar except that “Sansa e260″ is 4 GB in size and “NO NAME” is 2 GB.

Here’s the important difference: When I click on “Get Info” for “Sansa e260″, it is reported as FAT-32 format. This is the Microsoft format that was used in Windows 95 and newer versions of Windows. FAT-32 formatted disks can be up to 2 terabytes in size. However, “NO NAME” is reported as FAT-16 format, and FAT-16 disks can only be 2 GB in size or less.

So, does the Sansa only support FAT-16 formatted microSD cards? Yes and no.

As an experiment, I connected “NO NAME” directly to my computer via the Kingston microSD USB adapter, and reformatted it as FAT-32. Then I copied some music onto it, disconnected it from the computer, and plugged it back into the e260. The e260 was still able to read FAT-32-formatted “NO NAME” and could play the songs on it. However, when I connected the e260 to my computer via its USB adapter, it would lock up and wouldn’t show up on my computer. But when I inserted “NO NAME” into the e260 after the e260 was already connected to the computer and “Sansa e260″ was showing up on the computer’s desktop, then “NO NAME” showed up, and I could copy files to it just fine.

So, in other words, if a 2 GB microSD card is FAT-16 formatted, the e260 handles it just fine. If the 2 GB microSD card is FAT-32 formatted, the e260 almost handles it just fine, except during the initial handhaking when connecting to a computer via the Sansa USB cable.

This leads me to believe that the (“version 1″, at least) Sansa e200 series can’t support the larger microSDHC cards, not because they’re larger, but because they aren’t FAT-16 formatted (nor can the cards be, since they’re too big for FAT-16). Rather, my guess is that it almost supports them, because it mostly (but not quite totally) supports FAT-32. It possibly can read them and play music and videos on them. It possibly can show them on a connected computer’s desktop if they’re inserted into the e200 after it is connected to the computer.

Now, when I put a true microSDHC 4 GB card (which is of course formatted FAT-32 because it is too big for FAT-16) into the Sansa, the Sansa doesn’t see the 4 GB card at all. It acts as if the card simply isn’t there.

As for Rockbox and the 2 GB microSD card, everything works fine. I can create M3U playlist files at the top of the “NO NAME” disk exactly like I can for “Sansa e260″ and Rockbox sees them and plays them:

cd “/Volumes/NO NAME”
find . -name “*.mp3″ > noname.m3u
find . -name “*.MP3″ >> noname.m3u

The only oddity is that Rockbox’s “Files” app ignores the volume name “NO NAME” and instead displays the disk as “<microsd1>”.

The same is true for Rockbox and the 4 GB microSDHC card. Rockbox sees the card, can play music from the card, and can even write files to the card. (Note: since the Sansa can’t use Rockbox during USB transfers to and from the Mac, the Sansa can’t be used to copy music or video files to the microSDHC card–the microSD USB Adapter must be used for that.)

Overall, the 2 GB microSD card is quite useful, since I can connect it directly to my computer and quickly copy files to it without involving the Sansa (or the Sansa’s need to do the full “Refresh Database” process every time I copy over a single file). The 4 GB microSDHC card is almost as useful, but is slightly limited since the Sansa in native (non-Rockbox) mode can’t use it. However, I rarely use the Sansa in native mode, since Rockbox makes the Sansa so much more versatile–and Rockbox accesses the microSDHC card just fine.

And that’s it. There’s some hassle involved, but in the end the Sansa e260 and Rockbox can be used with the Mac, and will have all the capabilities of the iPod Nano plus a lot more, for a fraction of the price.

 Posted by at 5:54 AM
Jun 152008
 

I’ve seen many blogs, forum posts, and whatnot about all-electric RVs, and similar writeups about hybrid RVs, but I’ve never seen a detailed description of the advantages of bringing the two together into an all-electric hybrid RV.

So, what am I talking about here? An RV that is both all-electric and hybrid.

An all-electric RV is one without a propane tank. Most modern RVs provide all of the comforts of home, including space heaters and air conditioners; kitchens with ovens, stoves, and hot and cold running water; bathrooms with flush toilets and home-style showers. Typically, the space heater, water heater, stove, and oven all use propane to heat the air, water, or food.

In an all-electric RV, the propane systems are replaced by equivalent electrical ones. This has the advantages of simplifying the overall RV design, and removing the need for carbon monoxide sensors and heat-robbing vent holes. On the other hand, heating water and food requires a prodigious amount of electricity, far more than a single 12-volt “coach” battery can usually provide. Thus, the all-electric RV needs to have a bank of coach batteries, and a relatively heavy-duty and complex electrical system to support them.

An all-electric RV is still like a standard RV in that it has a separate battery for the engine, and another for the coach, and these two batteries are kept isolated from each other so that usage of the coach battery doesn’t drain the engine’s battery and make it so that the RV’s engine can’t be started.

A hybrid RV would be similar to a hybrid car: it would use a combination of a gasoline or diesel engine plus an electric motor to provide motive power. The motor would perform regenerative braking, so that some of the energy lost while stopping the RV could be recaptured. Overall, the hybrid RV should be somewhat more efficient in terms of fuel mileage than an RV powered by a standard gas or diesel engine. Even a few additional miles per gallon is a big gain in an RV that might typically get somewhere between 6 and 14 MPG. For example, going from 6 to 8 MPG in an RV is equivalent to going from 30 to 40 MPG in a compact car.

The hybrid system will require that the RV has a large bank of batteries to power the electric motor. This adds weight and complexity to the RV, but also has some very interesting advantages for RV owners:

  • The hybrid’s batteries would provide a huge amount of electrical storage compared to a typical RV’s coach battery. More than enough to make an all-electric RV possible, and even convenient. It is conceivable that the hybrid RV’s users could use their electric stove, air conditioner, and water heater simultaneously without putting an undue load on the batteries or requiring the use of a generator. Thus, the propane tank and all of its limitations, hassles, and requirements could be completely eliminated. Overall, the RV would be simpler to use and maintain.
  • The hybrid batteries would also eliminate the need for separate engine and coach batteries. The one huge battery bank would handle all of the electrical needs. Since the hybrid system’s computer would need to carefully monitor the battery state anyway, it could also warn the users before their coach usage lowers the battery bank’s charge to the point where the engine might not start.
  • Hybrid engines are fairly efficient and very quiet electricity generators; they are typically much more efficient, far quieter, and more reliable than the generators included with most RVs. In an all-electric hybrid RV, the engine could be used for all electric generation needs, and the generator could be eliminated. This would be a great feature, both for the RV owners and the people who are parked next to them, since no one would be forced to listen to the racket of a generator in the middle of the night. It would also reduce the RV’s overall weight and complexity.

How could an all-electric hybrid RV be built? A good place to start might be to look to the past. During the 1980s and early 1990s, many RV coachbuilders used a Toyota truck chassis as a platform for their smallest Class C RVs. These RVs were noted for their excellent fuel efficiency and the famous Toyota reliability. They commonly used a V6 engine, although some RVs successfully used a smaller 4-cylinder engine. Nowadays, Toyota produces trucks and SUVs with hybrid V6 engines–engines that are just as reliable and significantly more powerful than the ones that were once used in the small Class C RVs.

If Toyota makes a heavy-duty truck chassis with a hybrid V6 engine available, the RV coach builders would have all of the really tricky work done for them; they could simply create an all-electric version of their current small Class C coaches on this new platform. The hybrid chassis would need to have significantly higher weight-carrying capacity than the ones made during the 80’s and 90’s, since it would have to be able to carry both the hybrid systems’s heavy battery packs and the weight of a fully-loaded RV coach.

Once the basic ideas are worked out, Toyota and the RV coach builders could expand into smaller Class B all-electric hybrids and full-size Class A all-electric hybrids.

My guess is that many people who enjoy the RV lifestyle would be extremely interested in an all-electric hybrid RV, and they would likely be just as interested in the new features it adds as in the fuel economy it brings. I know that I would be.

 Posted by at 9:49 PM
Jun 112008
 

I’ve recently been monkeying around with bike maps, and trying to import them into Google Maps.

Here in Madison, bicycling is very popular. The local cities and Dane County have been very helpful in creating some maps for bicyclists. But their maps are standalone, and can be cumbersome when trying to figure out a bike-friendly route across town.

On the other hand, Google Maps is useful, flexible, and extensible. It would be great to combine the two.

Luckily, there is an intersection. The bike maps are also available in KML format, which is what Google Earth (and Google Maps) can read and import. (You can import them into Google Maps by going to “My Maps“, clicking “Create New Map”, then clicking “Import”, and selecting the KML file from your computer or with a web URL.)

Not so luckily, the Madison bike maps are available in a few HUGE KML files with everything and the kitchen sink all in those files. When I tried to import an entire KML file into Google Maps, it kind of worked, but became unusably sluggish. So, what to do?

Well, KML files are a type of XML file, which means that they’re text files, and as such are hand-editable. You can change the wording, delete parts that you don’t care about, and slice the good stuff into manageable chunks (like, say, one bike path per file, or a handful of small bike paths per file).

It turns out that the chunks are quite digestible by Google Maps. And once you’ve imported them, you can do all the usual tricks to them (annotate them with descriptions, pictures, and waypoints; change the line color and size; add more segments by hand; etc.).

Plus, having all the individual bike paths as separate maps is kind of handy, in that you can turn them on and off individually when you’re figuring out your biking routes.

Here are some results of importing Madison bike maps into Google Maps.

There are a few problems, though. First, there’s no way in Google Maps to make a “group” of maps. So, if you want to add the Capital City Trail and the Southwest Commuter Trail to “My Maps”, you need to add each of them individually. It would be really nice to be able to create a group of all the bike maps for Dane County, for instance, and to be able to view all of them at once without needing to add and then click on each one individually.

Second, there’s currently no way in Google Maps to do much of anything with the bike maps besides look at them. You can’t use them to “build” a route–to tell Google Maps to follow them when computing the best way between two addresses.

Third, at least for Madison, Google Maps currently has a serious misregistration between the map data (streets, highways, and any maps you create from correct lat/long data) and the satellite view–the maps and the satellite views don’t line up. So, the imported KML bike trails don’t line up with the satellite view either, which makes viewing them a little frustrating. It also brings up the question: If you want to add to or edit the maps by hand, do you use the satellite view or the map view? There isn’t an obvious answer to this question. The satellite view will indeed show the physical traces of bike paths, and thus makes it very easy to trace them. But the map view has the correct lat/long information, so using it is in a sense more correct. Hopefully Google will fix the misregistration one of these days and make this issue go away.

Finally, if you do create a single map with lots of bike trails in it, they won’t all display at one time if there are more than 50 or so trails (or segments of trails) in your map; only the first 50 will show up–the first “page” of trails / segments in the “list”. You’ll need to go to the “next page” to have the trails that make up the next part of the “list” displayed.

Still and all, it is pretty remarkable that you can do stuff like this at all. And, knowing Google, the maps that we import today will quietly and suddenly become much more useful tomorrow.

 Posted by at 8:30 AM
May 282008
 

I’m a big fan of Project Gutenberg and related efforts like Manybooks. They collect older, out-of-copyright books and create electronic versions of them, free for everyone, without restrictions of any kind. They make sure that older, almost-forgotten books are preserved, and make the great works available for easy reading and reference.

But.

My biggest frustration with the free eBooks projects–and this is certainly something that is not at all their fault but rather has to do with overzealous intellectual property laws–is that the books they post are, well, classics. As in old. As in works from a century or more ago, ones with dated language, well-explored ideas, and viewpoints that don’t always translate well into modern terms. Particularly in the Science Fiction genre. If you want to read the complete works of Jules Verne or H. G. Wells, or all of the adventures of Allan Quatermain, you’re in luck. But if you’d rather dig into some SF written within the past few decades, forget it.

However, that is changing. And to me, this change is both pleasing as a reader and disturbing as a wanna-be SF writer.

Now some of the greats of Golden Age SF are starting to pop up:

And while many of the currently available books are fairly obscure, some of them are the true masterworks of early-modern science fiction. And more are brought on-line every day.

As a reader, I am thrilled to see this happening. My “to be read stack” of eBooks is growing faster than the real-world stack on my nightstand. With all these classics to burrow through, why should I spend money on the new stuff being published? Especially considering that a lot of the new stuff is the classics, just repackaged, rederived, and rehashed.

As a writer, this makes me wonder: Is SF in danger of dying? Of being killed off by the very technology that it trumpeted? Perhaps. Or perhaps SF is moving beyond the traditional printed form, and reappearing in more interactive media, such as video games. When I think of the overall story arcs of the Marathon and Halo series, which explore the idea of “insanity” in an artificial intelligence, and the implications when the AI is far more intelligent, subtle, and capable than its creators, I find new approaches to familiar terrain. Better still, rather than presenting an unchanging tale with a predetermined arc, the game hands the reins of the protagonist to the player, and plunks him down right in the middle of the mess created by multiple AIs trying to outgame each other.

There are other games which have strong and interesting SF themes. Bioshock explores the results of a failed attempt at technological Utopia. Half-Life gives us the ability to play with SF’s more interesting gadgets.

There is something comforting about the idea of SF changing forms. Because that’s what SF has always been about: change. What will the future look like? How will it feel? Why will the differences matter to me? It only makes sense that the SF genre would be the one that would pulls itself up by its own bootstraps.

 Posted by at 5:50 AM